Neidi Lee-Sing Rojas Sunday, August 31 2003
Martin Joseph, Minister of Housing, is credited with bringing home for the PNM, the marginal Ortoire-Mayaro seat in the last general elections, which was won by Franklyn Khan.
He is said to be a man who sets the pace by planning strategies and carrying them out. When he was appointed a senator and made Minister of Housing, replacing Danny Montano in the new post-2002 elections, Opposition political observers immediately saw a PNM plot to organise the national housing development plan — provision of 100,000 homes across the country, as a way of ensuring that marginal seats could be made safer for the PNM. This, they argued would be achieved by deciding who got houses and/or apartments. Is there any truth that the distribution of houses will favour PNM supporters and is this not a form of voter padding? And what about charges of favouritism in getting a home to call your own? Martin Joseph refused to respond to any calls to his office on several occasions last week. In fact, his Communications Manager, Lenore Joseph, stated that the chances of talking to him were “very slim”. National Housing Authority’s Executive Director Noel Garcia was more easily available, stating outright that the distribution of houses would be “fair and just”.
The UNC Opposition, is not buying that.
One who was outspoken on the issue was Barataria/San Juan MP Dr Fuad Khan. He claimed his concerns were not a matter of “sour grapes”, but based on observations which he said revealed the demographic movement of the housing developments was not normal. “They are building housing units in Barataria/San Juan, St Joseph, Ortoire/Mayaro,” he said, “the major marginal constituencies.” Dr Khan said: “The way they are operating, even if the entire country ends up hating the PNM, they will still win an election because they will have votes in all the marginal constituencies.” Another source who wished to remain anonymous noted that the construction has been moving at a “more than normal fast pace.” He wonders if this is because of a genuine desire to fulfill the needs for housing or the fulfilment of a political agenda.
Anderson Morris, Public Relations Officer and spokesman for the Ramgoolie Trace, Curepe Farmers Association, has no doubt that the farmers, whose agricultural lands were bulldozed in May for houses, strongly feels this was done in order to fulfill Government’s housing plans. “Indeed, this is an avenue to gain votes, to make the marginal constituencies safe,” said Morris. “We have no problem with Government building houses,” he said, “what we are against is the building of houses on agricultural lands that were primarily used for agricultural purposes.” He pointed out that contractors have already been sent to the site and have started laying the foundation. Breaking down the entire housing plan contrary to Government’s agenda, an Opposition official described it this way: “If they have 2,000 units in one area and you multiply this by two, that will give you 4,000 people in one area alone and this is what they are aiming to do under the disguise of the need for houses,” he said.
So what is Government’s plan?
Garcia said its database for people demanding homes is about 31,000 applications with a likelihood of this figure increasing to 40,000 by the end of the year. The database is increasing at a rate of 2,000 people per month, he said, adding that the overall demand is close to 100,000 homes and this expectation is to be fulfilled by constructing about 10,000 homes per annum over the next ten years. Garcia insisted that Government’s proposed plan is to build just under 4,388 houses, next year about 6,000 houses and approximately 8,000 houses by the year 2005. The private sector will be actively involved with a number of home construction companies, developers and contractors taking part in the housing plan. The entire project is expected to cost Government $300,000 million with middle to low income earners expected to benefit most from the plan. The prices range from $100,000-$200,000 per unit for low income earners and the middle/high income earners; between $200,000-$300,000. Loans will be granted to the Trinidad and Tobago Mortgage Company at six percent with 95 percent financing. Therefore, the owner of a low income unit, will pay about $620 for a mortgage loan, with this increasing according to the price of the houses. “This is affordable when you compare the prices to what is in the market. In Diego Martin, for example, it is difficult to find a residential accommodation under $600,000 and the prices are just as high in other residential areas,”said Garcia.
Garcia strongly denied that the houses will be only in marginal constituencies, insisting that the plan covered every area in TT. He dismissed claims about the housing plan as being an avenue for voter padding, describing them as “rubbish and nonsense”. He said it would be very foolish for any Government to build houses in only one part of the country describing such a plan as not “physically possible.” “Our policy is to house all of our people without exception and without regard race, colour, class, creed or political affiliation,” he said. He wants to know why some people such as those in Valsayn and Santa Magarita were opposed to Government expanding the project in their area. “People are free as far as I am aware to live anywhere in Trinidad and Tobago. The NHA is about building communities and not only homes,” Garcia said. He said therefore, he could not understand why some communities believe the housing developments will create “urban ghettos” since the homes will be of upscale designs. Garcia said their “fears” were unwarranted and wonders if they were politically motivated. Corporate Communications Manager in the Ministry of Housing Lenore Joseph said the application procedure for the housing units is a “fair” one.
The interested party will be asked to fill out a form and will be added to the rest of application database for random selection, she said. When the person’s application is chosen via a lottery-style draw, he/she will be invited to a preliminary interview, to determine whether or not the person is financially capable of making the terms of payment. Once this is approved, the Trinidad and Tobago Mortgage Financing Company makes the final selection of the beneficiary. Joseph disclosed that currently, ads have already begun to appear in the media, showing the extent of the housing construction programme. At the beginning of its 2002 term, the PNM Government announced an extensive housing development plan. In a statement published in the press on June 4, Joseph said nothing was going to get in the way of Government’s housing plans. She responded to protests by farmers against the housing project at Ramgoolie Trace, Curepe, saying that Government believed in balanced development and had no plans to transfer prime agricultural lands into housing. “At the same time, Government is not going to allow people with their own sectoral interests and their own special agendas to interfere, as it attempts to ensure it provides affordable housing,” she said. Joseph said that Government saw the housing development as a matter of urgency to use oil and gas revenues to address the need for affordable housing. In another news report dated June 17, 2003, Planning and Develop-ment Minister Dr Keith Rowley accused the nation’s banks of lending no support to the Government’s thrust to provide housing for approximately 70,000 low and middle income families. He noted that Govern-ment estimated a 100,000 housing unit shortfall, pointing out that if there was a shortfall of 100,000 units in this country, this should tell somebody there are 100,000 families in this country who are not properly housed and are living in very dilapidated conditions.
In its mandate, the PNM promised it would ensure that every citizen has access to adequate housing, which will be achieved by implementing a Home Ownership Made Easy (HOME) programme. Among the list of incentives offered were:
95 to 97 percent loan amount including features such as recognising what they termed as “sweet equity”, six to eight percent financing, 100 percent financing for “Granny Suites”, as well as deeds to be provided by NHA for owners on housing estates. The list goes on — increase in approved Mortgage Company price limits from $350,000 to $450,000 in the East-West Corridor, preferred finance for bridging, home improvement and land loans, 100 percent financing for home improvements to qualified homeowners, mortgage interest tax deductions to be increased to $36,000 tax deductable allowance for first-time homeowners of one sixth of the purchase price of a house to a maximum of $10,000 for five years. Also included were streamlining financing and administrative arrangements, thereby reducing costs, inclusion of household appliances in mortgage loan, enhanced financial opportunities such as “open mortgages”, development of new entrepreneurs and contractors to support the housing thrust, enhanced public/private sector partnerships to support housing promotion and development, rebate of VAT to the homeowner on construction materials for housing costing up to $250,000 and housing bond to stimulate savings among young people for first-time home-ownership.
The grand plan also included other incentives:
*2,925 low-income housing units on 30 sites in 2002.
*an average of 10,000 housing units over the next 10 years
*Refurbishment of 237 NHA apartment buildings, representing 6,000 units
*Upgrading of sewage treatment plants in 19 NHA estates
*Regularisation of 5,400 squatter families on 17 sites
*Provision of housing subsidies to more than 3,000 families
*Provision of home improvement grants to 1,100 families and
*Construction of affordable apartments and townhouses for middle-income households.
On May 22, 2002, the Inter-American Develop-ment Bank announced the approval of a $32 million loan to TT to support the first phase of a $100 million national housing programme designed to benefit low-income groups. The IADB said the resources will be used to improve living conditions for 5,400 families in squatter settlements by financing basic services, communal facilities and normal tenure documents. The programme is also said to provide subsidies for both home improvements and new housing for an additional 4,100 persons in low-income groups and a modernisation process initiated at the Ministry of Housing. As new, affordable housing stock is produced, the Government will shift its role from the builder of costly public housing estates to a facilitator that encourages the private sector to take the lead in the production of affordable housing the IADB said. It will build upon the experience of the first stage of Government’s national settlements programme which was launched in 1989 with IADB support. The housing plan appears to be very grand and to offer hope to those who desperately yearns for shelter, but where are these house apartments being built? Does the breakdown really deny the charges of house padding that favours the PNM?